Editor’s Note: Recently, the Saudi writer Mashari Althaydi was the victim of a character assassination campaign after participating in a program on Al-Ekhbariya TV, a Saudi news channel, on 28 June 2021, to talk about al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya (The Islamic Awakening) in Saudi Arabia. After the campaign began, Althaydi was hosted by Saudi journalist Tarek al-Hamid on Al-Mawqif (The Situation), a program on Al-Saudiya TV on 8 July 2021, where he spoke again about the Awakening, about political Islam, and about the current challenges facing the Kingdom.
Althaydi is a journalist and almost daily writer for Al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper. A public intellectual with a deep knowledge of Islamic culture and law, as well as current political trends, Althaydi is well-known to Arabic-speaking audiences, appearing regularly on Saudi TV channels, including Al-Arabiya, as an analyst and commentator.
Althaydi began his career writing at Al-Madina newspaper in 2000 and then went to Majalla magazine and Al Watan newspaper. He became an editor in Al-Madina newspaper, before moving on to Al-Sharq al-Awsat, where he became both a writer and an editor in 2003.
Mashari Althaydi, presenter of Al-Arabiya News Channel’s “Views on the News” daily show “Maraya” and the former managing senior editor at Asharq al-Awsat
The Present Controversy
Although the interview with me on Al-Ekhbariya TV lasted for over-eighteen minutes, it is a twenty second clip taken out of context that has become the focus of a smear campaign on social media and elsewhere. I talked about a study conducted by Nasser al-Hujailan, a Saudi academic, entitled, “The Religious Refrain in the Words of the Saudis: Cultural Patterns and Functions”. Published in 2006, Al-Hujailan noted that Awakening era figures had been embedded in the education system in the 1980s and the way their cultural norms had brought about sociological changes in the mainstream of society, reflected in the way daily language is now used, so that “Thank you” became “May Allah reward you well” and “Hello” was changed to “Peace be upon you”.
Dr. Al-Hujailan’s study covers a wide area, analysing societal transformations in the period, including food, drink, clothing, fashion, the way houses are furnished, and the language. I used the example of language, a living thing that grows and evolves, embracing new vocabulary and shedding other words over time. This did not stop extremists and supporters of the Awakening movement taking a carefully selected clip to decontextualize and oversimplify my point, and then using this straw man argument of their own creation to accuse me of Islamophobia. Thus did a mild academic proposition become a heated public farce.
Such decontextualized and distorted methods of attack are not new—they go back more than two decades. The only thing that has changed are the means. It used to be the forums where extremist groups organized and promoted charges of blasphemy against people whose views they did not like; now it is Twitter. I suffered such distortions in the aftermath of 9/11, when I described what Osama bin Laden had done as “terrorism” that had to be confronted. At that time, large sections of Saudi public opinion were sympathetic to Bin Laden and referred to him as “Sheikh Osama”. It took Al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks inside Saudi Arabia to fully change this situation.
Do Not Provoke Them!
Reading the responses to my interview on Al-Ekhbariya TV, what drew my attention more than the slanderous attacks was the call by so many people, most of them well-meaning, amounting to: “We should do not provoke this segment of public opinion”. This is a speech we have heard many times in Saudi Arabia over the years, over various issues, from development programs to women’s empowerment, which have agitated extremists. This logic is paralyzing; if we succumb to it, we will not make even one step forward.
It is the main function of opinion-makers and public intellectuals to stimulate thinking and discussion, which will often be difficult. Dealing with the issue of the Awakening and how it expanded and penetrated the society is important for the lessons it gives about dealing with extremists at the present time. The Awakening is not being singled out: the archives of newspapers and television channels can be consulted to confirm that I and others confronted the Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas when they were sacred cows, when the mass of Arab media was glorifying Hassan Nasrallah and Khaled Mashal. Extremism has to be confronted no matter what cloak it wears.
This raises the more general problem of disinformation for reformists and indeed for the whole country. Enormous amounts of content on Twitter have focused on Saudi domestic issues, such as unemployment and gasoline prices, often attached to hashtags like “Quds rises up” that are not obviously related to the ostensible issues being discussed. This content includes a huge amount of rumor, innuendo, and outright fabrication aimed at distracting public opinion. Notably, the origin of many of these hashtag campaigns can be traced back to foreign state sources and the way they are amplified shows every evidence of the technical misuse of the mechanisms on Twitter to make it a trend.
Extremism and Moderation
As important as it is to discover who is behind these online campaigns, countering them is even more important. Raising awareness about extremist discourse is key to addressing its effects. Unfortunately, neither the state nor society are doing enough to help raise awareness.
Vision 2030 is based on several key pillars: economic, industrial, administrative, and intellectual advancement. The latter is clearly explained by Prince Mohammed bin Salman in meetings and interviews, where he has warned against political Islam, particularly the Sururi movement, which Prince Mohammed regards as more dangerous than the Muslim Brotherhood. This is bold talk and augurs a new openness. But we must translate this bold orientation into permanent programs based on robust intellectual content, not temporary campaigns to counter misguided ideas.
Critics will say that I was an extremist, and this is not a secret. I adopted extremist ideas for a period of my life before 1995, but when leaving behind one extremism I did not pick up another, as they claim. Instead, after my emancipation from extremism, I called for the right of women to drive, societal and intellectual openness, opposition to the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood and its ideologues like Sayyid Qutb, and resisting the projects of Hamas and Hezbollah, too. I embraced moderation, not extremism.
A related accusation is that I and others who work to confront political Islam do not criticize other forms of extremism, such as the far-Left. This is untrue. Personally, I have written a lot about their tendentious use of terms such as environmentalism and feminism to advance far-fetched notions. There is also the curious fact that the far-Left has found alliance with the Islamists. In the U.S., Representative Ilhan Omar, a veiled Muslim Somali who supports the causes of political Islam, nonetheless attends street demonstrations advocating gay rights. A similar dynamic is at work in the surreal scene of the topless FEMEN activists chaining themselves to the railings of the Egyptian Embassy to demand the release of Muslim Brothers charged with terrorism offences.
I know that everyone claims moderation, so moderation needs to be precisely defined, especially in the current situation of Saudi society, where there is intellectual warfare across academia, universities, research centers, and think-tanks. I believe that the clearest definition of moderation is the words of Prince Mohammed: “I associate moderation with compliance with the laws. All that adheres to the principles and laws of the state, and does not go against it, is moderation”. Furthermore, his Highness explained that personal opinion is uncontrollable, but the moment it comes out in public and impacts the social context, useful or harmful, it becomes a public activity and should be subjected to evaluation.
Moderation, of course, by definition, is to an extent relative. As Prince Mohammed pointed out, at certain points there was reliance on so-called religious preachers as part of the social order; that has now changed. The word “preachers” is itself one that I find problematic. Although it is a well-known Qur’anic term, it has been appropriated by secretive political Islamic sects—and this is not only true in recent times. The Fatimid Caliphate of the tenth century arose after its “new preaching” spread, and extremist preachers from within the Fatimids created an even more dangerous offshoot, the Nizaris or Hashishiyyun, known in the West as “the Assassins”.
The Muslim Brotherhood and similar groups wedded to political Islam have experienced some setbacks of late, but those who think this means they are in an irretrievable state of decline are mistaken; they are still strong. These groups continue to campaign, violently where they can and through infiltration, disinformation, and subversion where that path is closed to them. As the new U.S. administration shows signs of going back to some of the failed policies of the Obama days, we should brace ourselves for malign actors who will once again try to take advantage.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.